Mightier Than the Sword

Pens and brushes combat violence in a program for homeless kids.

The children's paintings and drawings hanging at the Temple Gallery look a lot like what you'd find stuck to any proud parent's refrigerator. Except that the kids who produced this art come from families that until recently may not have owned a refrigerator. Nor a home to put one in.

Through the Eyes of a Child displays work produced in The Art Room, an expressive-arts program for kids living in domestic violence shelters and transitional housing. The Art Room operates on the theory that "the act of producing art has a powerful healing impact, particularly for children who are unable to put words to their experiences."

The most visible homeless people are those grizzled Vietnam vets holding cardboard signs promising "Will work for food--God bless." So it's a jolt to read in the art show's introduction that the average age of a homeless person in the United States is only 9. Disrupted female-headed households are swelling the ranks of street people.

Typical is 10-year-old Michael, who has several pieces in the Temple Gallery show. Dressed in a sports jersey and baggy black jeans, a crucifix hanging from a long strap around his neck, Michael spends part of his time considering what he might eventually do for a living. Being a doctor is an option; so is becoming a basketball player or wrestler or rap artist.

Michael sometimes talks about the "good times," back when he and his mom and dad all lived together in their own apartment. But then the parents split, and Michael became a nomad, at best relying on the hospitality of relatives. "We stayed with Tía and Nana for a while," he says. "And we lived in the car."

Right now Michael and his mother reside at Shalom House, a tidy apartment complex that aims to help people get off the streets and into their own homes. Shalom House, like Casa Amparo, hosts weekly Art Room sessions, where Michael and other kids between about 3 and 15 undertake supervised art projects.

The results of one assignment hang in the Temple show: Paint something you fear. Michael's contribution depicts him squatting in a fetal position, surrounded by trees and bushes crawling with snakes and dotted with inquisitive eyes. Approaching from one side is a large, menacing man.

Another kid's drawing on this theme depicts a woman aiming a gun at a shirtless man who falls into a pool. Between these figures is a child shouting "No, mom, no."

Some paintings are sunnier. A paper quilt glues together several kids' paintings of themselves dancing. One girl's self-portrait includes symbols of things she loves; there's a sun, a heart, a tree, a smile and the footprint of her little brother.

Another self-portrait, though, shows the artist with a preoccupied expression, looking away from the viewer. And one child, asked to paint a family portrait, produced only a blue animal figure in the lower left corner, explaining, "This is my pet hamster. It died. My brother killed it."

"For a lot of these kids, home has never been a safe place," says Art Room program director Barbara Seyda. "They've been exposed to rape, sodomy, physical violence, emotional violence; these kids are either witnessing it or victims of it."

Seyda says she didn't even realize there were homeless children in America until she began working on the book Nomads of a Desert City: Personal Stories from Citizens of the Street, just out from the University of Arizona Press and soon to be excerpted in the Tucson Weekly. "Once I finished that project and got to know some of these people and started to understand the problem better, I felt compelled to still be involved in the homeless community in some way."

Seyda founded The Art Room at the beginning of last year, modeling it on DrawBridge, an arts program for homeless kids in the San Francisco area. She's had trouble securing funding, but has received support from the Brewster Center and a few other agencies and individuals, including the VisionMark Foundation, Tucson/Pima Arts Council and Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery. The Etherton Gallery has donated the use of the Temple Gallery for the Eyes of a Child show.

THE ART ROOM ISN'T QUITE A normal arts program, Seyda says, because the children it serves come from extraordinary circumstances. "Kids who have been living on the street, or whose family life is unstable, internalize a lot of fear, not knowing what to anticipate in their lives," she says. "So in The Art Room they can be very self-critical, not respecting other people's work, wanting to make weapons out of the materials. But in many ways they're ordinary kids, caught in the undertow of their parents' lives.

"People should come to this show to have their eyes opened and their hearts opened. We've got to honor what these kids are going through. I love these kids, and I have incredible admiration for their resiliency and courage."

Last week's Art Room session at Shalom House, though, looked like a gathering of ordinary, happy pre-teens. In the facility's community room, lined with books and toys and kid videos and video games, nearly a dozen besmocked, happily noisy children sat at paint-splattered card tables, challenged to create a painting while blindfolded. One tall girl was circling the room, looking for someone to play school with her; she'd already produced three blindfold-paintings that hour, one of which she aptly called "Pizza."

The oldest kid there was a 15-year-old named Anne Marie. A high-school sophomore, Anne Marie confidently described herself as college-bound. She said that she is the only teen at Shalom House to participate in this program. "The others are too caught up in their lives," she explained. Anne Marie attends, in part, because "it gives us something better to do than get in trouble," and in part because she simply enjoys working around young children.

One of her favorite Art Room projects was being turned loose with a disposable camera to photograph anything she pleased. "I took pictures of my friends and my family," she said, "but I also got in a weird position and took a picture of a penny on the floor, just because it looked interesting."

Anne Marie's "fear" project was a drawing of herself at the edge of a cliff with a long fall; below is a tangle of thorny cactus. "I felt better after I did that, because I'd never thought about what I was scared of," she said.

According to Seyda, art is clearly therapeutic, although it benefits some children more quickly than others. "We had a boy named Pedro who was very self-critical and easily frustrated," she recalls. "Finally, after several months, something happened one class where he accepted the process and stopped freaking out, and he started generating incredible work."

"A lot of these kids don't know how to be kids, and we tell them, 'It's all right; do what you feel," says Daniel Alvarez, who coordinates children's activities at Shalom House and is a big fan of The Art Room. "In this program they can express a lot of what they're feeling. I know a couple of troubled kids who were showing a lot of anger; in the program, they got to do a painting on something that made them angry, and when they did that, you could see the anger just evaporate from them."

Programs like The Art Room may provide these children a few hours of fun and safety and respect, but both Alvarez and Seyda acknowledge that they can't magically improve every aspect of the kids' lives. In the time she has directed The Art Room, Seyda says, "some [children] have moved on to better circumstances, many of them to worse."

For better or worse, their art documents their lives. "The work underscores what difficult journeys they've had for such young beings," says Seyda. "For many of these kids, violence is an everyday occurrence, whether it's in school or at home; they're constantly exposed to things like drug abuse, gang involvement and acute illness."

In Through the Eyes of a Child, some self-portraits and paintings of "dream houses," even by the older pre-teens, consist only of thick, harsh brushstrokes of dark hues. But a streak of optimism balances the rootlessness and despair in much of the art, too.

One girl used crayons and colored markers to produce a two-page prose poem in Spanish. She contemplates what she would do if she were a butterfly, a cat, a fish, and in each case she would travel the world in search of something. But in the end, she remarks, she is not a wandering butterfly or cat or fish; "I am only a girl with a good home."